Taken For Granted – Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast hits theaters this week, and in spite of average reviews and a “controversy” over the existence of gay men in the movie, it’s safe to assume it will have a huge opening week and will probably hold steady for another week. It’s the latest in the line of “reimagined” live action works from Disney, something I’m inclined to call a vanity project. The massively successful Disney machine makes so much money that they can afford to remake their movies and sell them again. And while this has resulted in the pretty good The Jungle Book, it is so far the exception to the rule.
And why do we need to remake Beauty and the Beast anyway?
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
Beauty and the Beast
Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Written By: Linda Woolverton
Produced By: Don Hahn
Edited By: John Carnochan
Music By: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Feature Animation
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures
Paige O’Hara as Belle
Robby Benson as The Beast
Richard White as Gaston
Jerry Orbach as Lumière
David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts
What Do We All Know?
While not the most successful Disney film of its era (that would be The Lion King), Beauty and the Beast has a reputation as perhaps the best American animated film of all time. It was the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture (losing to The Silence of the Lambs), won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, became a successful Broadway musical, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry a mere eleven years after it hit theaters. Its characters are iconic, its music is arguably the best work Howard Ashman and Alan Menken ever did, and it is a certified classic by any stretch.
So what makes this film so special? Why is this held in higher regard than say, Aladdin or The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Are fans overrating a film that has some great parts but is overall average? Or is there something else working here?
What Went Right?
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s adaptation of the classic French fairy tale serves as the basis for this movie, and it’s a very simple, straightforward love story that can be summed up in about two minutes. Filling that out to an 80-minute runtime without making anything feel like filler and being genuinely entertaining is a tough task that this movie makes look easy. It certainly helps that the film has Disney’s stunning hand drawn animation and the incredible score from composer Alan Menken to carry it along. But at its core, the movie works because of characters.
Perhaps out of necessity, Beauty and the Beast works especially hard to make its characters feel human. Getting the audience to buy into candles, clocks, teapots and giant furry monsters as actual people is not simple. But through the screenplay, animation and especially the voice cast, these things feel like real people with distinct personalities and histories we are only getting a brief glimpse of. Even characters who only have a scene or two, like the feather duster, wardrobe and oven have memorable quirks that make them feel more lifelike.
The most important character to get right here is the Beast. The range they manage to pull from this character design is amazing. He’s terrifying when he needs to be, but also gentle, vulnerable and even goofy at others. If they couldn’t sell this character, the movie would fail, and they nailed it. Equally important is his rival Gaston, who has to be convincingly menacing and evil despite looking like a Disney Prince. He’s memorable, but also down to earth; he’s not an evil witch or an evil god. We’ve met this guy. Some of us are this guy.
Belle also stands out as one of Disney’s best female leads. She is a little older than many princesses (one reason Paige O’Hara was cast), her main hobby is reading (inferring a degree of intelligence), she’s willing to sacrifice her own dreams to protect her father, and even in the most dire circumstances she always stands up for herself. She doesn’t grow in a traditional sense, but she is the story’s moral center and how she interacts with people, especially her suitors, sets the pace for the film. What does change is how she comes to feel for the Beast as he changes; there is no love at first sight here. The romance takes a cleverly vague amount of time and feels real.
So with a world full of great characters to play with, the film rarely feels like it’s wasting time. It’s solidly constructed, tells a story at a good pace, and allows the animators to add layers to the characters. The film also has some incredible background work. The Beast’s castle is the highlight, with its foreboding halls and hostile gargoyles, but the village, the forest and the mountains also stand out as impressive visuals. And while it might not hold up perfectly today, the ballroom scene was a groundbreaking CGI effect that presented an image in a way no other animated film would have dared before.
And yes, the film also has possibly the best collection of songs in a Disney movie. Alan Menken’s score is consistently good throughout, but add in Howard Ashman’s lyrics and you get something amazing. “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” are the most iconic, but my favorite is probably “Gaston”. While Disney always had music as part of their movies, Ashman and Manken came from a background of writing musicals. They knew how to construct songs that hit at the right times to help tell a story naturally. Ashman’s gifts as a lyricist were second to none, and this was his masterpiece.
What Went Wrong?
Beauty and the Beast doesn’t have any meaningful flaws. This isn’t the type of column that nitpicks about continuity errors in background animation (such as the teleporting bear rug), because most people will only notice them after several viewings. I also don’t hold stock in the “stockholm syndrome” criticism. It’s a funny joke, but doesn’t really apply to the actual characters. I really doubt there was an epidemic of kidnapping fantasies that spawned because women watched this movie as young kids.
If I had to nitpick, there’s a scene near the end where Chip uses a wood cutting machine to save Belle and her father. This has never made sense to me. How does Chip operate it? It’s weird, but doesn’t ruin the film. What might be a little worse is the design of the Beast’s human design. And the fact that he never gets a real name. Again, small details that don’t matter all that much.
What Went Really Right?
It’s no mystery why Beauty and the Beast is a good movie. All of the essential parts are good and they all work together well. But I do think there’s a reason this is championed as perhaps the definitive Disney film. In spite of a broad range of stories, Disney animation is most closely associated with fairy tales. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first fully animated movie ever. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are the iconic Disney movies of their eras. Same goes for The Little Mermaid and Frozen.
But Beauty and the Beast is the best of these classic fairy tales. It’s not only a great movie, it’s emblematic of everything that identifies the Disney brand. That it’s at once a quintessential Disney fairy tale and a truly great film allows fans to point to it as proof that something they love can be great.
The “Disney Renaissance” that started with 1989’s The Little Mermaid may be the biggest cultural touchstone for people my age in terms of shared experience. It was a Golden Age, with four or five movies from 1989 to 1995 (including the groundbreaking Toy Story) being considered among the best ever made. The impact of those films are still being felt today, as parents who loved those films now taking their children to Frozen, Moana and Inside Out among others. And they’re about to make the remake of Beauty and the Beast one of the biggest hits of 2017.
I know that singing the praises of Disney can be tough to swallow for some people. With Marvel Studios, Pixar, and Lucasfilm under their umbrella as well as their own animation studio and a longstanding partnership with Studio Ghibli, the amount of highly marketable and successful stuff they produce and make money off is simply astounding. And yes, sometimes they suck. They didn’t make a single film worth buying from 2003 to 2008 that wasn’t a Pixar film. And the entire era of 1970s and most of the 1980s was very rough. But when Disney is firing on all cylinders, it’s a very special movie magic. And perhaps no film embodies it like Beauty and the Beast. So, while I’m not overly optimistic about the remake, I can rest assured that I’ll always have the original.